About 90 percent of Americans eat more salt than health authorities recommend. It's difficult not to: So much sodium is baked into packaged food and restaurant meals that even people who never pick up the salt shaker can easily exceed the daily target of 2,300 milligrams.
Concerned over the link between excess salt and high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, the Food and Drug Administration today took a modest step toward ratcheting down the sodium in the food supply. The FDA proposed voluntary guidelines for food companies to gradually remove sodium from their products. The idea is that if companies agree to slowly make their products less salty at the same time, no company will have to act first and take a sales hit from consumers turned off by blander bacon.
Over time, the theory goes, American taste buds will adjust. And cutting the nation's salt intake could save tens of thousands of lives a year, by some estimates, though precisely how much sodium is too much is still debated by scientists.
The strategy broadly aligns with recommendations from the Institute of Medicine in 2010, though it urged the FDA to make salt standards mandatory. The consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, which last year sued the FDA seeking stricter sodium limits, has been pushing for the change since the 1970s. The group said in a statement on its website that the FDA guidelines set "clear goals by which companies can be held accountable. And it helps level the playing field for those companies that are already trying to use less salt in their foods."
The Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a statement that companies "welcome a dialogue with the FDA" and noted that food manufacturers have already taken steps to lower sodium. The group said "additional work is needed to determine the acceptable range of sodium intake for optimal health."
The FDA guidelines set targets for reductions over two years and 10 years, weighted by sales so cuts in sodium among the top-selling products will count more toward reaching the overall goal. It published sodium targets (file download) for 150 categories of packaged groceries and prepared restaurant meals, from pretzels and pizza to donuts and white bread.
Here's a look at the 10 saltiest prepared restaurant foods and how much the FDA hopes manufacturers will desalinate in the years ahead. The sodium content is based on FDA reviews of menu data from restaurant chains.
When it comes to packaged food, those little packets of dry seasoning and sauce mixes have the highest concentration of sodium. They're among the saltiest and are targeted for some of the biggest reductions.
There's still a long way to go before food companies get the salt out. The guidelines published today are a draft, subject to comments from industry. Once they're final, the targets will remain voluntary.
If the FDA's strategy works, bacon, soy sauce, cured meats, and lots of other food will be a little less salty in the years ahead. That will make it easier for people who want to cut their sodium intake. For everyone else, there's always the salt shaker.